Review: Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories (PS2)

kingcoverKingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories
Developer: Jupiter Corp
Publisher: Square-Enix
Genre: Role Playing
Release Date: 12/02/2008


I love Kingdom Hearts.

Say what you will about the series’ incoherent storyline or the ridiculous ease of Kingdom Hearts II. All I need is a couple dozen hours of revisiting my favorite Disney movies to put me in a great mood.

One of the first GBA games I picked up when I got my DS was Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. It was the only game in the series I hadn’t played and I knew it would connect the PS2 titles. I enjoyed the game enough, but the lackluster Disney sections coupled with card based combat left me feeling a bit unsatisfied.

Back in 2007, Japan received a final mix version of Kingdom Hearts II that included a remake of Chain of Memories. This remake was in 3D and featured new cards and gameplay. We never got final mix over here, but we are getting the remake for CoM.

So, how good will the game hold up several years later on the PS2?

Story

Chain of Memories starts off right where the first game ended. Sora, Donald, and Goofy are wandering about trying to find Mickey and Riku when they come across a giant castle. A mysterious cloaked figure hints that Riku is in the castle, so naturally Sora hops right in.

The castle is Castle Oblivion. In here, worlds are created from your memories and everything is decided by cards. You need cards to attack, open doors, and even just to advance the plot. As you move up the castle, you’ll visit various Disney worlds created out of the memories of Sora from the first game. Oddly enough, they left out the world based of Tarzan, but all of the rest are present. Each level has about four cut scenes where you’ll come across a few characters and move the plot forward. Usually you have to help Aladdin save Jasmine or something of the like. These sections aren’t well done at all. Sure the characters are timeless and you’re happy to see them, but they aren’t given any room to develop at all. Sora and company don’t remember any of them (I’ll get to that in a minute.), but somehow they all know each other and act as if they are old friends. The only real connection was when you visit Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket gets a tear in his eye upon seeing his friend. Each of these stories is usually about the power of memories or the power of friendship. If you wanted the game for the Disney stories, then you might was well pass over the game.

If, however, you’re interested in the Kingdom Hearts story, you’re going to be in for a treat. The game is the proper introduction to the Organization. You’ll meet several members who weren’t in Kingdom Hearts II. As the story goes, the Organization members are tricking you into moving deeper into the castle. As you move forward, your memories are stripped from you and deeper ones are allowed to emerge. This is why Sora doesn’t remember any of the Disney characters when you visit each world. However, he does still know all of the Final Fantasy characters. Go figure. In between each Disney level, you get a couple of cut scenes that move the plot forward. It can get a bit melodramatic, but the characters are interesting and the twists are genuinely exciting. These scenes are the only ones with voice acting as well. This only adds to the feeling that they were given the most care. king1

So what you end up having is a Kingdom Hearts story with a little bit of Disney thrown in so we don’t forget that the series is supposed to be a merger. Disney fans will be disappointed, but series fans will enjoy the missing link between the PS2 games. (Also, if you wondered why there weren’t 13 members in Organization XIII, this will help clear that up as well.)

Graphics

Making the jump from 2D to 3D was comparably easy for CoM. You see, all they did was use the Kingdom Hearts II engine and port character models over. As such, the game usually features fantastic character designs and fluid animation.

However, there are some artifact issues in the cut scenes. I noticed a lot of blurry textures and what appeared to be wavy lines in door frames. This didn’t occur every where, so I’m assuming it wasn’t part of the plan to include these issues. All of the cut scenes had to be created from scratch though, as several of the characters had only existed in the GBA game before hand.

The levels themselves can be a bit bland. Each world is just a set of rooms with identical wall paper and a few scattered bits of detail to attempt to differentiate the rooms. Monstro in particular was ugly. The design is supposed to look like the belly of a whale, but it comes off more as a child’s attempt to decorate his room with splotches of paint. Castle Oblivion isn’t much better. Its nothing but white everywhere. It can blind you sometimes.

Despite the issues, if the only reason you had for buying the game was the presentation upgrade, you won’t be disappointed. While this isn’t nearly as good as the PS2 can manage, the game pulls off a look somewhere between the first two games in terms of quality. It certainly looks better than the GBA version. (Which even then was high end for a GBA game.)

Audio

What a difference a new system can make.

Instead of poor quality versions of Disney and original tunes, you get the full versions from the other games in the series. The music is miles above the quality of the GBA game. This is the kind of music that I bought the original soundtrack for. I love the takes on songs like “Under the Sea” or “This is Halloween.” The songs can get a bit repetitive as there is only song per world, but they manage to be fun and light when they need to be as well as dark and brooding when the need arises. king2

Voice acting has been added for all of the Kingdom Hearts characters as well as Donald, Goofy, and Jiminy. The voice actors return from KHII, so if you liked the voices there, you’ll like them here. You also get new voices for the various Organization characters. A few of these are over done, but on the whole, the quality is good and you only get a few cringe worthy moments. To be fair, that’s usually the dialogue’s fault.

My only complaint here comes during battle. I had to hear “hi-yah!” so many times I though I was going to puke. Only the bosses make any sound, so all you get from the heartless are some whooshes and the like. A little more variety would have been nice, but you can’t win them all I guess.

All in all, the audio is up to the standard set by other games in the series. You won’t get any voices for Disney or Square characters though. That’s one less paycheck for Scott Weinger. (If you don’t know who that is, ask.)

Gameplay

This is not your daddy’s Kingdom Hearts.

Instead of being able to mash the X button to death and kill things with abandon, CoM uses a card system that requires a bit more planning and strategy.

Everything you do in battle is decided by cards. Attacks, magic, items, summons, and even Donald and Goofy are now cards you can call on for battle. Each card has a numerical value. You run abound a 3D environment and use X to activate cards. If the enemy hasn’t played a card, you get a hit. If they play a card, your card needs to have a higher number in order to hit. If they play a better card, you’re card will “break” and you’ll be stunned for a few moments. Zero cards are much like the spies in Stratego in reverse. If you play a zero first, it will get broken. If you counter an attack with a zero, it will break any opponent’s card.

You can also stack cards in pairs of two or three in order to create higher totals. Let’s say an opponent plays a card with a value of nine and all you’ve got are sevens. If you stack three sevens, you’ll break that nine and launch a painful three hit combo. Zeroes will still break any stack. Stacking cards will also allow you to perform sleights. A sleight is often a powerful attack or spell that deals great damage. There are dozens of sleights you can learn, and it’s wise to mix up what cards you stack to utilize them. However, when you use a sleight, you lose the first card in the set for the duration of battle. You see, normally you need to reload your deck when you run out of cards. If you used a card as the first part of a sleight, it won’t return when you reload. You’ll get it during the next battle.

Finally, premium cards are also available. These are cheaper versions of cards that you can put in your deck. However, if they are used, they are gone for the duration. If you use them as the second or third card in a sleight, they will come back. If you ever use them as a single card though, they’re gone. These are useful because each card is worth a certain number of card points. Your deck has a limit to how big it can be and the only way to increase this amount is by leveling. Premium cards can allow you to lower the cost of your deck so you can fit more into it.

Three are yet more cards to talk about. You need a world card to open a new world. These are often given in groups of four or five. You can then select what world you would like to go to next. The floor design is the same no matter what world you pick, so floor 2 will always have the same layout whether you’re in Agrabah or Atlantica. They’ll have that world’s look, but the number of rooms never changes. You’ll also need room cards in order to open doors. You get these by defeating enemies. These change the shape of each room and can also affect what kinds of enemies you’ll deal with. For instance, the teeming darkness card will give you a large room full to the brim with heartless. Sleeping darkness gives you a tiny room where all of the enemies are out in the open, but sleeping. You’ll also need key cards to open special doors that advance the plot. You’ll even need a special room card to create a save point or go to a shop to buy new cards.
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While in a room, the enemies will appear and chase you. If you strike them first, you’ll enter the battle room with an advantage as the enemies will be stunned. You don’t fight enemies in the overworld. Otherwise, the objectives in any room are to smash anything for health, moogle points that can be used in shops, and new cards. Once all the enemies are beaten and all the crates smashed, you’ll just need to open the next door. You never have to fight enemies before you open a door, but it is recommended that you kill them all first, as you’ll need the experience and room cards to advance.

For the most part, the controls are responsive and work great. There are a few issues though. You’ll need to jump and grab on a ledge in several rooms. You’re supposed to grab on automatically, but this doesn’t always happen. It will usually take a few jumps to get it right. Also, the camera will not move unless you manually rotate it with the right analog stick. However, this means you won’t be able to have your thumb ready to play a card. There’s a lock on button to mitigate this problem, but when you’re surrounded by enemies and can’t see the one right behind you, you’ll get frustrated.

My biggest problem was the auto lock the game does. During battle and in rooms, you’ll see a yellow reticule on whatever the game deems is closest to you. If you initiate an attack, whatever the reticule is on is what Sora will attack. This is fine during battle, although you might start attacking a new enemy instead of the one you’ve been focusing on. You can lock on if you need to there. On the overworld though, you can’t lock on. Since there are so many objects to hit or smash, you’ll often find yourself beating the daylight out of a lamppost instead of the heartless that is creeping up on you. This was a problem throughout the entire game, especially since I often had to move the camera around just to find the heartless in the first place. It was easier in the GBA game when you had an overhead camera, but I suppose some niceties had to be lost in the translation.

On the whole, the combat can get pretty deep, but you’ll still be relying on luck more than I’d like. You don’t know what cards your opponent will play before it’s too late often enough. Friend cards are also dropped randomly throughout battle. If you were counting on a good Donald card, you might end up losing because you got Goofy instead. The game is solid, if not spectacular. I would have greatly preferred the gameplay of the previous console Kingdom Hearts, but this will do.

Replayability

At first it didn’t seem like the main quest was going to last me more than fifteen hours. And then the end game took about six. The game should last you somewhere between 18-25 hours to beat depending on how much you level. You have the option of revisiting floors in order to open doors that contain treasure. You need a special key to open these that you won’t start getting until about the seventh floor onward.

What’s after that? How about a whole new mode featuring Riku? There’s a whole new quest to complete with Riku after you’ve beaten the game. You’ll travel through the basements of the castle fighting different members of the Organization. Riku’s quest is quite different. The Disney sections are even more useless as there are only a few characters present at all. Riku’s decks are all pre made and the goal is to see what you can do with it. By breaking cards, Riku can go into dark mode where he’ll be stronger. Leveling is used to increase the power of this mode, attack power, and hp. The quest isn’t as long as Sora’s, but the story fills even more holes between Kingdom Hearts one and two. It’s definitely worth visiting.
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After you’ve completed both quests, you still have the option of completing them again using one of three difficulty settings. I played on normal and got a hefty challenge, so hard is sure to please the hardcore. Also, thanks to the inherent customability of deck building, you can have a different combat experience each time. You can focus more or less on sleights for example, or make yourself more of a mage. I’ve looked around and seen hundreds of deck ideas and each of them plays differently. This is one of the more replayable RPGs I’ve seen out there.

Balance

There are a few issues that need mentioning here.

For one, the basic enemies are a piece of cake. I could button mash all I wanted and beat the enemies around like there were just a pile of leaves. They can’t use sleights, and most of them have low card values. It wasn’t until the final section that I came across heartless that had some serious challenge. They had a ton of life and could consistently push out eights. This last section was the first part of the game outside of boss fights that I actually had to pay attention to in order to succeed.

Speaking of the boss fights, most of the Disney villains are cake. Not a single one managed to best me and most of them never even got close to hurting me. However, the KH bosses were delightfully tough. I fought some of the most intense battles I’ve ever had against the likes of Larxene and Riku. When I finally got my deck in order and executed my plan, the victory was sweet. I did think some of these fights were too hard. Riku’s attacks are ridiculously fast. I could break most of them but still take damage because I couldn’t react fast enough. Still, this is part of the fun of these battles.

The map cards were notorious for me in the GBA version. At one point, the game wanted a card with a value of two. I spent HOURS going back to earlier levels before I got one. This killed my interest in the game for quite some time. Here, this is no longer a problem. For one, there is a new card called the roulette room that allows you to spin a wheel and pick whatever room card you want as long as your timing is good. Also, the game introduces joker cards that can be used for any requirement outside of keys. Finally, I was able to play through the game without having to worry if I could even open a door.

However, these new cards kind of hurt the game as well. You can use them in tandem to avoid enemies all together if you do it right. By constantly using save rooms, moogle shops, treasure rooms, or even sleeping darkness, you can shoot right past enemies if you’ve want. Some might find this useful, but I find that it’s just a good way to under level yourself. It doesn’t break the game at all, but I can see it being a problem for a few.

Overall, the levels are too easy, but lead to challenging boss fights. A little more effort should have been put into the worlds to make them more interesting.

Originality

Remakes don’t get points here.

They did a nice job of integrating the old system with the higher end engine. I’ll give them that.

Addictiveness

Because of the ease of the enemies, the game can really drag at certain points. Each world will take you an hour or more to go through. Most of that is mindless fights and creating rooms that look far too similar for their own good.

Once I got to the end, I couldn’t put the game down due its rise in challenge and ability to test my mental faculties. The game is definitely bottom heave when it comes to fun. The boss fights are what it’s all about.

Appeal Factor

Kingdom Hearts is becoming a pretty big franchise. It’s sold upwards of ten million copies so far, and this remake is sure to nab some attention on the PS2. The console is starting to run low on games, not to mention a lot of people probably never played the GBA version.
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Fans of the series will no doubt love it despite the card based combat. Parents can feel safe letting their children play it thanks to the Disney license and a complete lack of gore.

If however, you’re new the series, this one will probably be a pass. The cards are not for everyone and the story makes little to no sense if you haven’t played the first game. You’ll have no clue who Kairi is and why she is so important to the series. Heck, you won’t even have an explanation as to what a heartless even is, or why Mickey is no where to be found.

This is for fans only, but there are a lot of fans.

Miscellaneous

One thing that bugged me was the lack of voices for the Disney characters. Revisiting the sites of these timeless films is a huge part of the Kingdom Hearts charm and to see them treated as second class citizens broke my heart. The fight with Hades just wasn’t as fun without hearing James Woods breathe life into the character. I suppose they didn’t want to pony up the dough to get these guys back, but it was still disappointing.

Still, I want to commend the dev team for making a remake that had actual changes to it. The 3D world was a lot more fun to explore and having actual cut scenes with facial animations and body movement gave real life to some previously lifeless characters. As a fan, I was satisfied with the game, if not blown away.

I just hope the next games in the series don’t use cards.

The Scores

Story: Enjoyable
Graphics: Above Average
Audio: Very Good
Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Great
Balance: Decent
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Enjoyable
Final Score: Above Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

diehardjack3If you like the Kingdom Hearts games, then Chain of Memories is a good buy. It fills the holes between the numbered games in the series and provides some pretty good card based gameplay. Its much more of thinking game then its previous console brethren, and it offers more challenge in one boss fight than Kingdom Hearts II did in the entire game, but that doesn’t mean anyone can’t enjoy it. It won’t blow you away, but this is a safe buy if I’ve ever seen one.

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